For the length of Kent MacKenzie's rediscovered 1961 feature, the past is not distant: It's vital, concrete, immediate—a record of vanished sites and vanquished dreams suspended in an eternally looped present. An account of 14 dusk-to-dawn hours in a community of relocated Native Americans—Los Angeles's once-prosperous Bunker Hill—it unfolds without artificial urgency or hyped-up climaxes; it's acted with unpolished conviction by neighborhood residents that the British-born director met in the mid-'50s while researching a documentary. MacKenzie (who died in 1980 at age 50 after making just one other feature) had an ear for the poetry of ritualized interaction, and an eye for the glint of hard light on city streets. As the three lead characters (played by Yvonne Williams, Homer Nish, and Tommy Reynolds) disperse like seeds to poker games, joyrides, and dissatisfied window shopping, the stunning black-and-white movie walks a nightworld so crackling with unfocused energy—so alive with threat, promise, and raw honking rock 'n' roll, yet so limited in any sense of a future—that to enter it is to feel your blood surge. Started in 1958 and completed three years later—a period encompassing the nouvelle vague's initial shock waves a world away, and roughly coinciding with the similar efforts of John Cassavetes and Lionel Rogosin at home—this 50-year-old film stands as the freshest movie currently in theaters, in every sense that matters.
Dec. 6-7, 2008